I am not a geneticist. I am, by profession, a sculptor and colorist in the equine collectibles industry. I make hyper-realistic, small-scale earthenware horses like the ones pictured above.
So why does an artist write about horse color genetics?
I became interested in the subject because I wanted to make the horses I created as realistic as possible. From there, my interest grew until I was spending almost as much time researching horse colors and patterns as I was painting them. In 1992, I began publishing articles with the hope of helping other artists accurately portray colors and patterns. Not long after, I began to get requests for articles from the horse community. In 2001, I was asked to give a presentation in Lexington, Kentucky, alongside Dr. Phillip Sponenberg, whose 1983 book Horse Color had sparked my initial interest in the subject all those years ago. That experience convinced me that while my background might be unconventional, it offered its own perspective on the visible expression of coat color genes. I still believe that artists bring a unique set of skills and insights that complement those of the scientists working in this field.
In 2009, I began work on what was intended to be a small guidebook for artists covering the colors found in the different breeds. The project grew in scope, and the first volume of The Equine Tapestry was published in the summer of 2012. A second book followed two years later. The series and its companion blog were enormously popular. Soon I was spending more and more time away from my studio, and I was increasingly identified, not as an artist or even as a writer, but as a “geneticist.”
The problem with this was that not only did not have any formal education in the science of genetics – I had no formal education at all! The first time I stepped inside a college classroom was as a guest lecturer; I had never taken a science class beyond high school Biology. Everything I knew came from curiosity about a topic I loved and a belief that I could understand anything I put my mind to learning. I still believe that is true, and that we do the cause of scientific literacy a disservice when we behave as if the subject is only accessible to those with a formal education. But I could not help but wish that things had turned out differently. How much more could I have learned in a formal classroom, with others to help guide my inquiries?
In the spring of 2018, I decided that while I could not change the fact that I did not attend college when I was young, the only thing stopping me from attending now was the belief that it was too late. I tracked down my 30-year-old high school transcripts, and before I knew it, I was writing papers in APA format and trying to master college Algebra. Initially, I imagined I was on a path to making my work “official” by obtaining the proper credentials. But something else happened along the way. I realized that while I love science – and genetics in particular – my heart was actually in the teaching of it. I was admitted to the UNCC College of Education Honors Program in 2019.
That means that, no, I am still not a geneticist. Technically, I am a full-time student and now a somewhat intermittent artist. But I still believe in the value of citizen science, and hope to encourage others to join me in its practice.